The beloved singer-songwriter Cass Wheeler has abandoned retirement for one last chapter in her musical career. She assembles an album of greatest hits – the songs that mean the most to her, songs that she wrote during the brightest and darkest times in her life. Each song is a chapter. Told in tandem with the lyrics, this novel moves skillfully across episodes of a fascinating and sometimes tragic life – from Cass’ lonely childhood, through her freewheeling rise to fame, to first love and loss.
This is a 3D novel, and the first instinct is to shudder ... There is nothing here that hasn’t been covered in the more candid memoirs and autobiographies of stars from the 1960s and 1970s. But Barnett’s portrait is unusually perceptive, a mixture of evocative detail and sharp reportage that feels fresh to read. To her credit, too, she scrapes away the gloss to draw out a nuanced and honest account of the loneliness that plagues her singer ... Barnett pulls off the novel and its collaboration with pizzazz, turning it into a feat, not a gimmick. Which goes to show: don’t trust the gut feeling.
The mother/daughter relationship is the most moving aspect of this excellent book, and as Cass becomes a mother herself the novel asks, to what extent can harmful patterns be broken? And in the bleakest moments of our lives – when we tragically replicate hurt and lose what we most love – in what ways does music console and redeem? This engaging, emotionally charged novel about music, motherhood and mental illness deserves to be a hit.
The novel is muddled in places, with a few too many characters and the odd bit of stilted dialogue. But it has a wisdom and a harmony that are satisfying, as Cass considers all the years that had, with such incomprehensible swiftness, rolled by and disappeared'. Who knows where the time goes? People who listen to the words will find one intriguing answer in Greatest Hits.